What Is Literary Analysis, Exactly?

In lower school, students are asked to read and write about books. If you were a lucky student, you were asked to analyze those books – posing questions about what the text means and what it is trying to say. 

These are the basic questions of literary analysis. And they are the foundation for college level writing about literature. 

It’s critical to recognize that this approach to writing about literature is very different from generating a book report. 

Book ReportLiterary Analysis 
Lower School Writing College Level Writing
Emphasizes Summary Emphasizes Analysis 
Simply shows that you did the reading and understood the plotShows that you have thought critically about the text
Applies the terminology of literary analysis 
Involves questions of theme –  the meaning(s) & message(s) of a text 

Literary interpretation is fundamentally interested in the question of what a text means. What is this text about? What ideas does this text communicate? To answer the fundamental questions, we pursue a diagnostic analysis of the text, assessing the structure of a work and its component parts. Then we step back and analyze the text from a conceptual standpoint. 

Starting with macro-level questions, we then move to micro-level questions and look for ways that the various elements of a text combine, interact, reinforce or complicate one another.

Macro-Level Literary Elements

  • What happens in the narrative?
  • What is the story and what is the plot?
  • Who are the characters and who is the protagonist?
  • How are the characters portrayed? What specific traits do they possess? What actions or events in the novel are the characters associated with?
  • What is the broad setting of the novel (time and place)?
  • From what point of view is the story told: first person, third person?
  • Generally, what is the style of writing used in the text?
  • What subjects or topics are explored in the text?
  • How is the text structured?
  • Does the poem present distinct verses or stanzas? Are all the verses the same length?

Micro-Level Literary Elements

  • Is the plot linear or does it feature flashbacks? If so, what time-frames are presented/juxtaposed?
  • What is the purpose or importance of flashbacks in the narrative?
  • Are there other narrative shifts in time or in point of view?
  • Do any of the characters function as pairs, as foils, or as distinct groups? 
  • Are characters connected to certain settings?
  • What specifically do the characters say in dialogue?
  • Does the text use repetition or refrain?
  • What contrasts are created in the text?
  • What specific comparisons and metaphors are used and what/who are they attached to?
  • Are there any repeated metaphors or conceits (organizing metaphors) at work in the text?

Considering questions on both of these levels, the reader develops an interpretive and analytically informed perspective on the text. In looking at how the various elements of a text interact, we are evaluating meaning. In other words, we are now talking about theme. Our assessment of the elements of a text lead us back to the question of what a text is really about and what it communicates. 

We question our interpretation and test it. Does the identified theme seem consistent with all of the details of the text? Are there elements of the text that are unrelated to this theme? Is the theme we identified a major theme or a minor theme in the text? If we adjust our interpretation slightly, do we come to a more comprehensive interpretation of the text that accounts for a majority of the characters, motifs, and narrative components?

In this phase (if we are reading in a literature course), we are taking notes and finding specific passages in the text that help to build a solid sense of a text’s meaning.

We review a text with a thematic idea in mind and find places in the text where that idea is clearly expressed, considering also the literary techniques at work in these passages. For instance, if the theme is expressed through a symbolic object, as in The Pearl or Superman I, we will note passages where the object appears and how the text discusses the object.  Alternatively, we might look at how a text utilizes flashbacks and assess the importance of these moments in the narrative, identifying what the flashback episodes might have in common thematically.

The cycle described here is a very natural one. First, we read the text. Then, we take a close look at the component parts of the text (literary elements). We generate a sense of how the parts relate to the whole and, in doing so, come to an interpretation of the text’s theme(s). Then we read the text again to scrutinize our interpretation and see how well it really fits the work.

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